I have discovered Otto Dix a few years ago in Dresden. I knew almost nothing about him, and when I say his extraordinary anti-war triptych at the Dresden Art Museum I was immediately stricken by the force of the expression and complexity of the composition. Dix was certainly an exponent of his times, his best years of creativity were the years of the Weimar Republic, and his work is as much an expression of the hope, the fears and the contrast of these times as the one of contemporaries Lang or Remarque. He started ny being influenced bu Nietzsche, then the first world war experience marked his life, played with Dada and participated in their first shows, to join the ‘New Objectivity’ group which was trying to take the artistic style beyond Expressionism, while sharing many of the themes.

Neue Galerie Entrance

Since discovering Otto Dix in Dresden I sought more information and found out that he is little known out of Germany, and no major books or albums can be found. One of my queries was made two and a half years ago in the Neue Galerie which is located on the 5th Avenue, on the Museum Mile, just one block uptown and vis-a-vis from the Met. It’s half a museum, half a gallery, and the best place place to meet German and Austrian artists in Manhattan (they were having a haunting exhibition of Alfred Kuhn at that time). The bookshop vendor told me ‘no – unfortunately we have no books about Dix, but you know, by spring 2010 we shall be having an important retrospective of him, the first big exhibition of his works in North America’. Lucky me, the IESG meeting this week was hold in New York, and I had the opportunity to see it.

from The War cycle - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Dix

The exhibition covers the two most prolific decades of his creation – the 20s and the 30s. It starts at the second floor with the terrific cycle of 40 lithographs ‘The War’ which may be the strongest anti-war statement in the genre  after Goya’s ‘Horrors of War’. In a way it exceeds Goya’s limits, as the degree of human insanity increased in the century since the Napoleonic wars until WWI. It is not that Otto Dix was necessarily a pacifist, but he lived through the war experience (where many of the sketches were made) and he had as he witnessed ‘to take these out of him’.

The Skat Players - http://www.ottodix.org/index/paintings

The ‘Skat Players’ dates from 1920 and belongs to the same thematic group. The view here is more sarcastic, as Dix depicts the war invalids, which together with the war widows forced into prostitution by the economic after-war hardships were the principal subjects of his works in the first years of the 20s.

Dr. Fritz Glazer's Portrait - source http://www.neuegalerie.org

The pressure released Dix established himself as one of the well known painters of the period, and changes tone going into portraits as principal genre without ever abandoning to mix the human and the social aspects when approaching his subjects. One of the striking portraits of the period is the one of one of his mentors and supporters, a Jewish lawyer named Glazer. The lawyer never liked the portrait because of the flagrant Jewish traits but Dix meant it actually this way, and the projection of the character on the desolate urban landscape gives it the feeling of anguish and premonition. Although not Jewish, Dix hated anti-Semitism and fought it most of his life, as some of his later works will show.

The Dancer - exhibition poster

Another famous portrait of the period is borrowed by the poster of the exhibition. ‘The Dancer’ represents Anita Berber, a well known figure of the boema of mid-20s Berlin, a beautiful woman often filmed, photographed and painted in nude. Dix who was a personal friend of Berber paints her dressed in a red dress, that just enhances her femininity.

Self Portrait with Naked Model - source http://www.tendreams.org/dix.htm

The contact with the decadent life of the artistic milieu of the time put Otto Dix in trouble with the censorship or even law authorities. In response he painted the ‘Self Portrait with Naked Model’ where he tries to describe the separation between art and life, between vice as a theme and the real personality of the artist. These are actually the years of greater success and stability in his life, the years his family life flourishes as he marries the ex-wife of a client and his three children are born.

The Seven Cardinal Sins - source http://www.mess.net/galleria/dix/

The coming to power of the Nazis ended the international career and the teaching life of Otto Dix. The author of such allegoric works as ‘The War’ and ‘Metropolis’ triptychs (not present in the exhibition) or of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ which represents Hitler as a mask for Greed could not be liked by the National Socialist regime. A few of his works will be exposed in good company in the exhibition of ‘degenerated art’.

Vanitas - source http://www.tendreams.org/dix.htm

Yet, he decides not to leave Germany as most of his colleagues did. He moves to a small city to the South of Germany, and continues to paint, changing themes and style. He now focused on allegories and landscapes, many of them in the style of the old German Renaissance and baroque masters. While ‘Vanitas’ above is still modern in style and classical just in theme, the ‘Saint Christopher IV’ below could belong to a late Renaissance master.

St. Christopher IV - source http://www.mess.net/galleria/dix/

The theme of the Jewish persecution comes back even in these dark years. One splendid works in the exhibition which I could not find a reproduction for is painted in Flemish style and represents and old and ruined Jewish cemetery under a frozen sky – a somber statement about the fate that the Nazis reserved for the Jews of Germany and Europe.
Otto Dix outlived the war, despite being sent again to fight as a soldier in the final months of the war and being a prisoner for more than one year after the war. He was one of these artists who continued to travel and share time between East and West Germany until the late 60s. Yet, his major works are those created in the two decades presented in the current exhibition at the Neue Galerie, and I recommend it for a visit for anybody who lives in New York or close or happens to be in the city in the next couple of months. The Web site of the museum can be accessed at http://www.neuegalerie.org/